Jovan Adepo is an incredibly talented actor and gave a career-best performance in the HBO series Watchmen (which is the most nominated project at the upcoming Emmy Awards, with Adepo having received a well-deserved nomination for his portrayal of Will Reeves / Hooded Justice). Adepo also showcased stellar work in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, and we can’t wait to see him in the upcoming The Stand, The Violent Heart and 5150. In our phone interview with the acting phenom, Adepo opened up to us about lessons he received over the years on the craft from Denzel Washington and Mahershala Ali, and yet in every role he portrays, he makes it distinctly his own. Adepo concluded our interview by saying: “I don’t want to name drop”, but I assured the chameleon that we don’t mind his mentions at all, as he is quickly making a name for himself in the Hollywood landscape.
The following is a condensed and edited phone conversation with the Emmy-nominated Jovan Adepo of Watchmen.
Brief Take: Watchmen was the most Emmy nominated project. You received a nomination as well for your performance as Hooded Justice. How does that feel?
Jovan Adepo: It’s definitely an honour to be included. It was no surprise to me that this show was going to get the attention that it’s received because of the incredible amount of talent that was involved. As far as the rest of the cast and Damon (Lindelof) and his writers’ room, and to every producer and creative mind that was involved has really from day one put their heart into this. I had no doubt that this was going to be something that people were really going to appreciate once it aired. I wasn’t expecting 1) The call to be included in the cast. It kind of came about very suddenly and 2) To be able to get the support of the Academy and the audience to include me in the nominations has been an honour and it’s been a wild ride to ride that wave. But for sure, I’m very, very appreciative of it.
BT: What do you lead with when you go from project to project?
JA: It’s really difficult. I think initially, especially at the time of The Leftovers, you’re talking about a young actor, who has only been in the industry for less than 10 years. It’s been about six years for me. And I think that anyone will tell you when you start out that you work where you can. You do as many roles as you can, you just want to keep working and build that momentum, and I think that this is definitely something that I tried to do when I first started. I was fortunate to have really strong and established mentors in my life and that’s Denzel Washington, Viola (Davis), Justin Theroux, pretty much the entire Leftovers cast, I was really fortunate to have people in my life to let me know that as long as you’re taking time to do the work properly and you’re playing these characters as fully and as sincerely as you can, people are going to seek you out to play characters. There’s really no need to do 10 roles in a year, unless you want to, [chuckles] and that’s never something that I wanted to do because I’m an incredibly huge fan of Daniel Day-Lewis. From my understanding and what he has expressed in the few interviews he has given is that he’s never felt obligated to rush into jumping into different characters. Because to really play a full character, it does take time, it does take a bit of life experience. Even Denzel said this to me before, a bit of life experience of living in your own space and taking time off to build the character, and then once you’ve played the role to completion to purge it. It doesn’t really benefit you to go into playing an army captain for eight months on a tv show and right after that, jump in and play the President of the United States. It’s like how do you create a full life of a character, in, say, three weeks time, going from one job to another. And I can definitely tell you that of course there are jobs that I’ve wanted that I wasn’t able to earn. Every actor has had that happen to them. I can’t give myself all the credit of not wanting to rush into roles as to why I’m so spaced out, but I can definitely say that I won’t take a job for the sake of taking one. I need to be excited about the character and feel like I can contribute to the project in the right way.
BT: How important are roles such as Will Reeves / Hooded Justice for you in terms of thematically?
JA: I really enjoy playing characters who are understated, who are, dare I say, under appreciated. These are people who are trying to prove themselves and prove their work to society and to the people immediately around them. As far as playing characters who are figures of the law or in the military or things like that, I tend to drift toward these types of characters because the ones that I’ve come across are people who have really strong morals. It’s not that I won’t necessarily ever play a villain or anything like that, I want to play characters who believe in something. And in whatever they believe, they believe in it fully. Because this helps you commit to the character that you are playing. I don’t ever want to be generic. I don’t ever want to be boring or somebody who is afraid to take risks, it just so happens that the first couple of characters I played early on in my career are characters who have really strong stands on certain topics and certain values and they are willing to risk their lives and risk their comfortability to sustain those. I guess that I’ve led with that truth and I’m sure eventually there will be a villain that I will come across that will be true to some belief [laughs], and he will be exciting and I will enjoy playing that as well, but I guess that we will see.
BT: What appealed to you most in your upcoming projects The Stand, The Violent Heart and 5150?
JA: I think that The Stand came about just because I was fortunate enough to build relationships with Josh (Boone), over having really great conversations over the years and really expressing respectively that we’re both people that want to work with each other in the future, so this opportunity came about and it was like: “Yeah, man”. Upon my first meeting with Josh, I knew that The Stand was his thing. This was a book that really made an impression on his youth and something that was really near and dear to him, so when he was able to re-adapt it for a fresher audience and he asked me to play Larry, I was really startled in the beginning, because I did my research and I was like: “Larry is against my type”. I hate to say that I have a type, because I really don’t believe that I do. I have the utmost confidence that I can play a variety of roles, but if you’re talking about the roles that I have already played, Larry is incredibly different.
And I think it’s that, I think it’s having the confidence of a filmmaker that I can do different roles than I’ve played. It’s the same as when Damon (Lindelof) cast me as Hooded Justice, that inherently that there’s something about him that perhaps reminded him of Michael Murphy (his character on The Leftovers), but I think Hooded Justice is very different [chuckles] than Michael from The Leftovers, so this job gives me expressing the confidence that I can play someone who may be less likeable to audiences in the beginning, but kind of earns their honour throughout the series. I was excited to take this character on a journey and that’s the same for 5150 and The Violent Heart, that these are people who are misunderstood and they’re being judged by their outward appearance. I think that once audiences get to know the inner personality and what makes these people breathe and tick, I think you get a better understanding of the complexities of people as a whole, and I’ve always wanted to explore that and help share these experiences with audiences.
BT: We continually speak with awesome fellow cast members of yours. What do you think this means that you work with great people?
JA: You go where the talent is [laughs] and that can be said for the filmmaker and the cast. I really enjoy getting a chance to learn and work with different people, to see different processes from different actors and to get different rhythms and pace. That’s the exciting part. If we’re going to go back to The Violent Heart, getting to spend time with Grace (Van Patten) and Mary J. (Blige) and Jahi (Di’Allo Winston) and the ensembles with whom I have been fortunate to work, it’s been really interesting and it’s eye-opening that my process, as I approach the work, isn’t the only process that is there. Everyone has their different ways of going about things and how they rehearse and how they go through beats and things like that, I’m always eager to find that out. I think that you are limiting yourself, when you get opportunities to participate in projects and notice that you are the most experienced person there. I think that sometimes organically that will happen, but even still, you can still learn from your contemporaries. If you’re going to compare Saniyya (Sidney) and me, I’ve been working longer than she has and I have more experience in terms of age, but I can say now that she’s done a hell of a lot more projects in number than I have, but I think that we can still learn things from each other. It’s a beautiful thing if you’re willing to embrace it looking at it that way, it’s something for which I try to be mindful when I take on projects. I think that when it came to The Stand, I would see really quickly that Josh (Boone) was going after really impressive talent and I was like: “I cannot wait to work with these people” and just get a chance to share a lot of scenes with James (Marsden) and Amber (Heard) and Alex(ander Skarsgard) and Whoopi (Goldberg). It was great to get a chance to do so.
BT: What does your working relationship with Emmys host Jimmy Kimmel mean to you?
JA: I think it’s cool. Jimmy is somebody who believed in me really early in my career and I know that even before Fences came about, that he had been a fan of The Leftovers for a long time, and he and Justin Theroux are buddies. When it was my first time doing the Kimmel show, I was incredibly nervous because this was my first time doing late night tv. It was my first time doing any talk show ever and it was cool that the Kimmel show was my first one. He knew that I was really nervous and he and his producers were really patient with me and told me that it was going to be really fun. I think that the thing that really calmed me down when I first did his show is that thing when you walk out and you shake his hand and all that. He looked at me and he said: “Hey man, I’m a big fan of The Leftovers, I’m glad that you came and did my show”. From then on, the interview was easier for me to do, because he helped me to relax. Even after the show, he was always really complimentary and expressed that he was a fan of my work.
When The Jeffersons remake came about, it was as simple as a text message and a phone call, like: “Hey buddy, I’d love for you to do this, we’re going to have a great cast”, and again, speaking to what you just mentioned earlier about the type of cast that you want to be around, I was like “Absolutely. I want to work with Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes and Anthony Anderson. This is a great opportunity and I would love to be a part of that.” Jimmy made that work, and to get to share this moment with him as he’s hosting the Emmys is [pauses] I’m telling you, man. I don’t know, it’s weird to talk about it because of the pandemic and how we’re trying to deal with this issue right now as a country and as a planet. But when you can find moments to be happy about and celebrate, you just kind of have to bask in it, and that’s what I have been doing. It’s been really great, man. I’ve been really fortunate and really blessed, [laughs] what can I say?!
BT: Are you looking to write and direct more into the future?
JA: I think that has always been one of the possibilities for me. I moved out here initially to be a writer. That’s all I wanted to be. I had no interest in being an actor after I moved out here upon graduating university. I had a degree in Political Science and that shifted naturally into creative writing and creating my own stories, and that’s what I wanted to do. One of my favourite writers is Aaron Sorkin, so in my mind, I was just going to be the next Aaron Sorkin and that was going to be my life. [laughs] And then acting kind of came about suddenly and I just rode the wave. As a child, I did plays and I had a deep appreciation for performing and for movies because of my parents. That was just a natural segue, but there’s always an opportunity to produce and direct and to write. I haven’t thought about directing—yet—but…if the opportunity and mood ever strikes me so much that I dare to do it, then I will. But I think that as of right now, I’m still pursuing acting in the way that I want to feel wholly confident in what I am doing. I want to get a few more roles under my belt and I mean challenging roles before I go into different outlets. Who knows, me producing and writing my own thing is what it’s going to take for me to get those roles. This is a very competitive arena, and I think that studios have their lists and they will always go off their lists of who they want to cast and sometimes you have to take your destiny into your own hands. I appreciate you bringing that up because if I’m not getting what I want, that’s something that may need to get done.
BT: What is something which you feel like you acted the hell out of in your career?
JA: I think moments in Fences for sure and I would have to give all of that credit to my contemporaries, to Denzel and Viola and Russell (Hornsby), Mykelti (Williamson), Stephen (McKinley Henderson) and then Saniyya. Having really strong scene partners just helps you to be in it. And that goes for all of the parts that I’ve played, you’re only as invested as your scene partner. Now, if, for the sake of answering your question, because it is a question that kind of forces you to be a little vain, [laughs] I will delve into it as much as possible without being this way. The Violent Heart for sure, because that role required that I felt comfortable being really vulnerable and embracing anger and frustration and aggression and insecurity as Daniel, that was something that needed to be a part. And Watchmen for sure, because Watchmen I was dealing with a lifestyle that was different than mine and I was playing somebody who was burdened with so many misunderstandings of identity and who the hell he was and what he wanted to represent, and how he felt he was viewed amongst society and who he thought he was really and how desperate he was to feel comfortable in his own skin. There were moments that because of that element, you needed to be there and you needed to be in it fully. And of course, there were scenes that I was like…not like “Man, I acted the shit out of that”, but like: “Wow. I feel really overwhelmed with emotion. I feel like I properly opened myself to the moment”. It’s kind of an out-of-body experience.
I felt that as well in When They See Us. It came through being that I was struggling to connect to it. And I was really, really nervous because at the end of the day, I didn’t want Ava to be mad at me. Not that she would be, but it was just my insecurity and me wanting to be good for my director. Wanting to deliver what I know she needed from me, as my cast mates were giving as well, I was like: “I don’t want to not be able to do it”. And me having a bit of an anxiety attack, I was able to snap into being where I was needed in that moment I had with with Michael K. (Williams), and I was able to find something that I think she felt worked. Actors will have that and sometimes you can control it and sometimes you can’t. I think that something that I learned from Viola (Davis) is you don’t always want to “shoot for the cry”. You don’t want to be like: “Oh, this is heavy, dammit, I gotta cry”. Because that can kind of get cliche and boring as well, so her and Denzel have always been like: “If it ain’t there, it ain’t there”. Find a way to be honest. No matter what if the honesty is there, the camera is going to see it. And the people are going to tell, because the audiences aren’t stupid either. [chuckles] There’s so much content now that audiences aren’t dumb. They can catch fraud, they can catch it so quickly. They will let you know about it really quickly, so it is always best to be honest and best to be sincere with every emotion, moment, line that comes out of their mouth. I try to do that. In every scene. In every job.
BT: What drives and motivates you through projects?
JA: Oh man, that’s really going deep into Jovan Adepo’s psyche. [laughs] I come from a competitive background. I grew up playing sports. That’s something that’s been in my family and in my life for a really long time. I want to be remembered. I think that success means different things for different people. And if we’re talking specifically in this business, it can mean a variety of things. If you want to come into this industry and you want to work as much as possible and make a shit ton of money, you can. I think that if this is your goal, you can really hone in on that. You can make that happen relatively easily and I think that is because there is so much content and so many streaming shows, there’s so many programs available, they all need casts. They all need actors. This is the best time to be an actor. Now that we’re finally bringing diversity to a bunch of different projects, there’s work available. If that’s what you want then that’s what you want. It’s up to you. Whatever floats your boat. I want to be remembered. I want to be seen as an actor by my peers and people who I hold near and dear as an actor who always delivers memorable moments and has a long, deep and respected catalogue of work. I want to be able to work with filmmakers who continue to push the envelope of creativity and continue to push what defines great cinema. One thing on which I am not ever budging, is knowing the calibre of my own talent. I think that I can play a lot more than what I feel some people believe I can and I’m willing to do everything that I need to prove that. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had filmmakers like Ava and like Denzel and Damon Lindelof and Josh Boone, who knew it. They were like: “We know you can play this…we’ll see you when you get here”. There were some people who knew that I could do the work and went from there. [laughs] These are the people to whom I am indebted and I really appreciate the opportunities to do this job. You gotta chop the wood. That’s something that Mahershala (Ali) told me is chop the wood, to keep stepping forward, and that is what I am going to continue to do.